Artificially induced empathy – if it helps, why not!

Empathy at the workplace - LabourflawBy Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. In line with the idea of “the new workplace”, core competencies such as the ability to show and apply empathy are more regularly requested of job applicants as well as employees.  Human capital trends show an increasing demand for emotional intelligence, integer social behaviour and empathy at the workplace.  One may argue that this is a natural result of a world which is moving towards artificial intelligence at a rapid speed (think IoT – Internet of Things; think cognitive technology solutions): In the near future, an increasing amount of tasks and even entire jobs will be done by intelligent machines; starting with menial tasks that can easily be automated, and that are repetitive. This will remove about 80% of the current workforce – especially if you include all industrial and manufacturing industries. What will remain are people who are able to manage and programme the machines; and people with soft skills and a high amount of human energy and spirit, ranging from doing human resource-related work to managerial empathy.

Em pathos – feel the feelings of someone else

What exactly is empathy? In a nutshell, it’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. It’s the ability to see a situation from someone else’s viewpoint, by removing one’s own ego out of the way temporarily. If you are highly empathetic, you are curious about strangers, their cultures and way of thinking. You challenge prejudices, and you try find common ground between people.  You might even try another person’s life. You listen with intent, and you open up. You have the ability to inspire mass action, and social change. Over time, you would also develop an ambitious imagination – one with which we can try understand those who we’d not usually empathise with, such as someone from a different religious or social background.

Empathy is part innate, part grown. While all of us are born with it, we don’t all nurture it to the same degree. The good news is that we can change direction at any time in life and change our mind and hearts towards becoming more of a homo empathicus. The even better news is that for those of us who can’t or don’t want to show empathy, machines might be the solution.

Machines that create empathy

Now this might be a thought-experiment only, but it has strong potential to becoming reality. Think along with me and leave me a comment below. I guess that you are familiar with computer games, and virtual reality. The kind where you turn into a different character for a while (or forever, in cases of serious addiction). If you have a Facebook account, you are pretty much part of our virtual world reality. How often have you come across a profile of someone who portrays themselves in line with their self-image? Someone who is dead honest about their issues, shortcomings, shadows, and fears? And how often have you come across profiles where you’re not even sure if the profile picture is of the actual person, or where pretty much everything is seen through pink glasses? I think that most of us escape harsh realities by window-dressing our profiles; and I think that most of us are more worried about our personal brand and about what others like or comment about us, than our own true development.

What if we could use both human psychology as well as technology and create artificial empathy “on demand”? For instance: Think of the most egotistical and self-important person you know in your life. You know, the one who is always right, who pretends he or she never has any fall-backs, and who feels nothing for those who endure hardship? The one who will always walk past a beggar and shrug them off as lazy? Just imagine we could attach this person’s brain to a virtual reality machine that lets him or her feel exactly how this beggar feels on the side of the road. The burning stomach; the sore head; the tiredness; the desperation; the loneliness; the hope. I have not come across such an experiment yet, but I’d very much like to know if this would result in gradual re-adjusting and in the development of empathy. I have a strong feeling it will. If we expand this exercise to the workplace, it’s easy to see the benefits resulting from it.

The new workplace is driven by empathy and emotional intelligence in general

In the “new workplace”, where employees are the biggest asset, where behaviour counts more than skill, and where results are empowered over time, wouldn’t it be handy to have a boss live the life of the cleaner for a day, or the single parent? Or an employee to live the life of a boss including his or her worries and insecurities? How about virtually experiencing a day of a colleague with chronic pain, or a disability? And vice versa, how uplifting for the one with chronic pain or a disability, to live a virtual life of one free of such restrictions? I see where this could be going… we might be switched onto virtual machines permanently. But, if administered in a controlled manner, it could certainly contribute to a higher understanding of “the other”, and in a workplace with much less conflict arising from not (or not wanting to) understand the other.

If I consider my own teenage daughter – the next generation – of whom the majority is constantly on 24/7 through some app, site or social virtual reality network – the art of empathy might be lost and will have to be re-ignited by those caring to share their skills, and if all fails, by our fellow computers.


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